Students of 20th-century art know the name Beatrice Wood. She was, first, the young, American girlfriend of French-born Dadaist painter Marcel Duchamp. With Duchamp’s encouragement she painted, then became known much later as a maker of ceramics and pottery. When she was very young, Wood managed to finagle her unsympathetic businessman father into bankrolling some Dadaist art projects, including one-off Dada magazines New York Dada and Rongwrong, copies of which now fetch huge prices on the art market.
I had known since my art book–devouring days that Wood, in her middle age, had moved out to California around 1947, no doubt leaving some romantic heartache behind. I also knew she eventually set herself up in a ceramics studio in the Ojai Valley, an hour or so northwest of L.A., and "found her bliss" there, with the help of a then-famous, Indian-born sage named Jiddu Krishnamurti.
Wood had left the ice-cold East (and Duchamp) to come out to serene, warm Southern California or, as Teddy Roosevelt once called it, “west of the west.” (I mention Roosevelt here also because he once described Duchamp’s famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase as “barely half as interesting as a Navajo rug,” or words to that effect.)
Ojai is known as a place where a lot of celebrities (and not only the usual Hollywood kind) have found a degree of cozy, rustic isolation and seclusion that’s close enough to feel connected to L.A. by nonromantic freeway, while keeping overly comfortable in a beauteous valley (with great Italian restaurants) that looks like a slice of Montana or maybe the western Sierras. It’s rustic and artsy and wealthy and always has been. So deal with it!
The drive from L.A. to Ojai, by the aforementioned nonromantic 101, takes you past some nice, calming, pastoral landscapes of rolling hills, at least after you’ve passed Calabasas (where there are streets named after my relative, pioneer local landowner Charles Mureau; just thought I’d mention that). By the time you’ve passed a neon overpass sign welcoming you to the town of Ventura (originally "San Buenaventura"), the road suddenly curves right and heads north, eventually taking you deep into a valley of low-lying hills that you never realized was there (because your mind was on Santa Barbara or Santa Cruz or San Francisco).
I have nothing to say about the art galleries that you’ll see lining the main commercial drag as you glide into downtown Ojai, with its long row of Spanish Mission–like columns; that’s a matter of taste. But Beatrice Wood’s historic presence in this little ritzy-rustic town was and is a landmark. Her studio home, located far up a mountain road on the bucolic and orange-grovey outskirts-of-Ojai (Upper Ojai), is open to the public a few days a week.
At age 90, Wood wrote an autobiography called I Shock Myself, which was a cute reference to the old WWI-era Dada tenet of “shocking” the public. How shocking was Wood’s own artwork? Not hugely so, really; she once put a real clamshell over the, uh, “pubis” of her pencil drawing of a naked woman. But that was 1917; we were easily shockable then, I guess. More shock-worthily, her threesome-involvement in that same era with both Duchamp and his friend, diplomat Henri-Pierre Roche, allegedly was the inspiration for Jules and Jim, the classic Truffaut film.
Wait a minute, what’s that over there, a few blocks up toward the hills? A bookshop that looks like an open-air patio? With all the books potentially open to the elements, i.e. rain? Weird. It’s got must-see written all over it …
I pulled over and walked out into the "frosty" 46-degree late-afternoon air, and sauntered over to the central, concrete “plaza” of Bart’s Books, which it turns out has been there since 1964. (“This may be the only outdoor bookstore in the United States,” says a guidebook. Uh-huh.) Ah, now I see: the unwanted cheapies, the dull and forgotten, are kept out in the open-air shelves getting all sun-bleached and depressing, while the good stuff is kept safe from harm inside discrete little bungalows.
Matt, a very tall, burly young man, offers me a guided tour when I mention that this trip is for the L.A. Weekly. Bart’s is apparently more than a novelty; the place is quite a collector-savvy bookshop. Matt points out some nice first editions of early Hunter S. Thompson, Allen Ginsberg, a vintage Henry Miller pamphlet kept inside a glass case in the colorful and rarefied art-books room. We talk about other literary outlaws, such as John Gilmore and William S. Burroughs. “Oh, that book he [Burroughs] did with Brion Gyson, The Third Mind? That’s my favorite book,” he says. “In my entire private collection.” OK, countercultural hipness in Ojai! It figures, I guess. I ask him if he’s been to Beatrice Wood’s studio … well, of course he has. Dumb question, probably.
Matt tells me Bart’s is famous for utilizing the honor system when it's closed, in that you can pay for the books you want (from the outside shelves) by “throwing coins” through the door. So simple! And people actually do it.
So what is Ojai about, you might ask. While most places are never “about” anything, Ojai actually used to be “about” something. To make a long story short: In those restless early decades of the 20th century, utopian and spiritually inclined colonies settled here, communal utopias that tend to eventually break up. However, the world-famous Theosophical Society still has a presence in Ojai. One of its original “colonists” here, Alfred P. Warrington, considered this valley to be “impregnated with occult and psychic influences." From what I know, these are the roots of “retreat culture” in America.
Ojai originally was christened “Nordhoff” back in the 1870s, in honor of an American author named Charles Nordhoff, who wrote a book called Communistic Societies in America (in the 1870s, mind you, not the 1950s; big difference). Later, during WWI, when all Americans were expected to suddenly hate anything even vaguely German, the name was changed to Ojai, after the original (and aboriginal) Chumash word for "moon." Seemed harmless.
Oh yes, the Chumash Indians inhabited this valley, pre–white utopians, for a couple thousand years, and some interesting SoCal words and place names we use now are actually Chumash words: Hueneme, Malibu, Saticoy, Sespe. In a guidebook called The Ojai Valley by Patricia Fry, I found it fascinating to learn that the Chumash would regularly travel by canoe to what we call Catalina Island to gather soapstone from which to make pottery. What a trek that must have been. “The Spaniards were impressed by Chumash craftsmanship. The planked canoe, or ‘tomol,’ in particular, caught the attention of most [European] voyagers.”
Fast-fast-fast-forward to 1946, when Beatrice Wood was part of the utopian draw. Krishnamurti, then a famous young mystic and philosopher from India, had many Anglo-American followers and seekers of inner peace living near him in the Ojai Valley. She joined them, a seeker of peace and tranquility, and also set up shop in her own ceramics studio: yes, to make pottery, her dream come true.
You thought Santa Barbara–adjacent Santa Ynez Valley was all fancy-schmancy with its wineries and tastings and delicious steakhouse restaurants called the Hitchin’ Post (featured prominently in the movie Sideways)? Well, you were right, it is, but Ojai’s got that place beat: still a place of spiritual retreats; also some spectacularly good restaurants and health retreats that seduce you all over, top to bottom.
Topo-geo-graphically, the Ojai Valley is known as the only east-west–oriented valley in the Western United States, which means one gets maximum serene glorious sunrises and sunsets here, purple mountains’ majesties lingering both above you and below you. In the far eastern end of the Ojai Valley, it’s all nature: tall mountains, strawberry fields, purple mountains. Which is all nice, but the best thing out here is a little Italian café called Boccali’s.
Boccali’s is cute, quaint, folksy and friendly. The place stands all alone out there under some oak trees, surrounded by vast acres of farming country, vineyards and a country road (I quote them: “Two miles east of downtown Ojai, past crowded streets and the hustle and bustle of town, sits Boccali's Pizza and Pasta amidst magnificent mountain vistas …”). Wait, hustle and bustle? The theme inside is red-and-white-checked, and you can sit outside in the front patio area suckin’ in that good Ojai Valley air, wafting in from over the fields. My gal and I were once there as the sun was setting, indulging in the "seasonal favorite," a really good strawberry pie; the pizza was good, too. (From their website: “Boccali’s recipes are ‘Original Ojai Italian,’ inspired by family recipes passed down from [owner] DeWayne Boccali’s grandfather, who journeyed to Santa Barbara, California, in 1898 from Lucca, Italy.”)
At the end of a long, meandering drive up a mountain road was this tiny little wooden sign, shyly announcing the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts. An interesting person greeted us when we walked in: His name is Kevin Wallace, and he’s the director of the center. Wallace is the kind of rare, cultured American male you would assume spent many years abroad, i.e. Europe (though I didn’t pry and ask him). Turns out he’s written many art books.
As the sun was now slowly settling down beneath the valley, everything outside deepening into a purple-red color in the fields and the hills, it was cozy to be indoors, surrounded by these warm white walls with display cases of glistening ceramic sculptures and early photos of Wood herself throughout the halls. Wallace and his wife, it turns out, were friends of Wood, who died back in 1997; as we talked about her, it became obvious that Beatrice Wood was the kind of creative free spirit who really never should have died (meanwhile, Charles Manson is still alive).
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Wallace gave us a nice tour of Wood’s studio, kept just as she left it, but for the fact that graduate students in art are sometimes invited to work here. Good God: nice view she had looking out at the mountain ridge to the east. Spiritual, yes … a great place to work on your art.
This true gent then took us into Wood’s library of art books and books on the various Theosophical-spiritualist teachers who made their mark on Ojai (and Beatrice) in the early 20th century: Krishnamurti, author Annie Besant, and Russian mystic Madame Blavatsky, who influenced the art and thought of Vassily Kandinsky. To this day, Beatrice Wood’s best-known quote is “I owe it all to art books, chocolate and young men.”
Marcel Duchamp, Wood’s old, old flame, apparently swung through Ojai in full art entourage back in 1963 to see her. Duchamp was an old man by then, lionized by everybody. Photos show him happily chatting with Wood, somewhere ’neath the trees in Ojai, his pipe in hand, her eyes looking up at him, beaming. His big retrospective was about to open at the Pasadena Art Museum (the famous photo of Duchamp playing chess with a naked young woman was taken there). It was probably small talk between them. Duchamp had gotten married back in 1955; he would die in Paris in 1968.
Wood died at the age of 105, so take her advice, or maybe modify it a little — season to taste.